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Sixers mismanaged James Harden’s early-season workload — they’ll get another chance in a month or so

At 33, James Harden is WAY too valuable to deploy like a 24-year-old young gun. Keeping him fresh for the tournament should be the ultimate goal when he returns.

Washington Wizards v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

James Harden dealt with hamstring injuries in 2021 and 2022. So heading into this season, the Sixers had a choice with their 10-time All-Star, three-time scoring champ, and former league MVP: take a conservative approach and keep an eye on his minute totals, maybe give him the occasional night off on a back-to-back slate, easing him back into the fold, avoiding mistakes of the past, prioritizing the playoffs... OR, they could just play him as if he’s 24 years old, allowing him to lead the league in minutes, play in back-to-backs, while asking him to carry additional burden with Joel Embiid routinely out of the lineup dealing with his own ailments.

I’d humbly submit my vote for the less-now-is-more-later approach, since the hyper-aggressive approach backfired for Brooklyn in 2021 and 2022. And for Philly in late 2022 as well.

I wrote Oct. 25: “I haven’t heard much about a formulaic load management plan yet. If the teams idea is some version of “it’s totally safe to play a guy whose been dramatically limited over the last two seasons all he can handle, now at 33 years old, we may be heading down a familiar road.”

But the Sixers went the other way, full-throttle:

They didn’t have to keep him restricted at 30 minutes per game, but they also didn’t need to play him exactly as much as they do (now 22 year-old) Tyrese Maxey. Come on, lol. There was a happy medium that existed and Philadelphia didn’t appear interested in it. Heading into the sixth game of the season, Harden was averaging 37 minutes per game and appeared in the team’s first back-to-back vs. Chicago. He shot just 2 of 13. The last time he’d made just two field goals in a game was in March of 2022, in a game at Phoenix. when he was seen holding the back of his thigh, the chilling sign his hamstring was bugging him. Before that, it was the infamous 2 of 11 showing he had as a Net, his last game for Brooklyn. He’d need two weeks off after that setback, before making his Philly debut.

In short, if Harden makes just two field goals in a game, something is off. James dusted himself off, and dropped 23 points and 17 dimes in a win the next matchup vs. the Wizards. But with Joel Embiid out of the lineup, his workload was through the roof, and some of us were on high alert for possible injury setbacks.

Now, Harden is expected to miss around a month after sustaining a right foot sprain on this drive, after he collided with a defender. The sudden impact on the left side, I’m guessing, must have put some added weight on that right foot:

Harden seemed more affected by the collision than the sprain at first. He was seen grabbing and flexing the slammed knee. He clearly had no idea the extent of the foot issue at first. He’d keep playing, eventually taking a break, then was later spotted limping to the locker room with trainers without a shoe, but then came back and played some more, basically logging over 30 minutes on a severely sprained tendon.

Then, apparently, at one point, the team prepared themselves for the possibility this was really, really bad, and so they actually felt some relief that it was only a month-long issue, give or take:

Harden slammed knees with a defender, and this could have happened if the Sixers had been extra, extra cautious with him. It could have occurred, for example, in his first minute of the entire season, whether that came in October or December. Some of these things are just fluky.

But as this team knows, simply being in the game at any point, significantly increases a player’s odds for both freak and non-freak occurrences. Right Pascal Siakam?

And Tom Haberstroh once reminded us, fatigue likely correlates with serious injuries.

So it’s my opinion that it was far too aggressive to let Harden stay atop the NBA total minutes leaders, consistently playing 37 minutes per game, especially facing one of the NBA’s busiest schedules (more games in less days than many) while Embiid was in and out of action.

And knowing he was taking on so much already, it was wayyyyyy too aggressive to allow him to come back into a game to play on this apparently sprained foot, after receiving all the attention back in the locker room.

The team didn’t have the results of the MRI yet, when they made the decision to let him resume playing. But it’s just not a smart risk to take in early November.

Few doctors could look us in the eye and promise us that he didn’t exacerbate this issue by finishing the game on a sprain. It’s exceedingly rare for Harden to get in game locker room medical attention for an ailment. The team had all the information they needed to make the most responsible decision and call his night early, and wait for the MRI.

I tweeted this take:

And our buddy TrillBroDude of the “You Know Ball” pod made this very fair point, that Harden himself, may simply push to play, no matter what, and the team may feel some of it is out of their hands:

Even if that approach isn’t working....

After all, Harden negotiated his deal to have a player option next summer. He doesn’t have to stay in Philly. So they may not want to play much hard ball with him. If he says he’s playing, maybe they just let him play. I get that part of it. A player medically cleared to play, who wants to play, deserves to make most calls. And again, it should be emphasized that he banged legs, and took a spill, that can happen on any play, no matter how conservative a team might opt to be.

Still, some responsibility has to fall on all parties here — Harden, the front office, the trainers, and the coaching staff. If you try as hard as you can to convince him to take a rest day, to stay fresh for April, and he flat out refuses, the coaching staff can at least monitor his minutes the way they have Embiid’s, and the trainers can push to hold him out of November games if they think he needs an MRI they’ll worry could sideline him over a month.

It’s all a game of probabilities. Just because one may eat a perfect diet, and stay fit and still drop dead, just because one may smoke two packs a day and live ‘til 100 doesn’t mean there’s no point in playing the health and exercise odds wherever possible. The presence of randomness doesn’t mean everything is random. That’s an easy truth to forget sometimes.

I think the Sixers should have had a different approach. And hopefully, they’ll be more careful moving forwards; both with the guys now being asked to take on more without The Beard, and once he’s back out there.

Now players like P.J. Tucker and Joel Embiid will have to pick up the slack. And they may need to log bigger minutes, and be less inclined to take a rest day themselves. That’s a risk. Tucker is 37 and Embiid isn’t quite healthy. Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris are two guys we tend not to worry about, but their workloads have been immense and should continue to be. That’s another. Maybe it can be Maxey All-Star season, and key role players can expedite development.

We talked about some of this stuff in the opening minutes of the “Talking About Podcast” following the team’s second L in a row, Friday night.

“The way we look at it we have the next two days off, a practice, and now we can ramp up, get him back,” head coach Doc Rivers explained of Embiid, still dealing with a flu, and some lingering conditioning issues related to the plantar fasciitis he had over the summer. “Obviously, we want to win the game, but we gotta also think of the long game as well,” Rivers said.

In a way, they all got lucky. The sky isn’t falling. Harden will be back. And then they’ll have a third chance (counting how hard they pushed him last March, following the trade) to be at least as conservative with his workload as they would be an MVP candidate with a lengthy injury history.

The Nets once took a very cautious approach to Kevin Durant’s return-to-play program, while asking Harden to carry the load while Kyrie Irving was absent too. The Sixers have seemed to take a cautious approach to Embiid this year, also leaning on The Beard. It’s time to take the same type of approach with Harden as teams have with a KD or a Joel. Treat this man like he’s the franchise and not a regular season innings eater.

They’ll get a third chance, but maybe not a fourth.

Oh, and if you’re James Harden reading this, and you have all the say... your former teammate Kevin Durant played in half of the regular season games in 2020-2021, but was widely regarded as the best player in the world following that season’s playoffs. Nobody is going to care what you do this regular season. But if you won a ring, you’d probably leap from “best player to never win one” with Patrick Ewing, Steve Nash, and Chuck, up to that top 15-20 all time conversation, with D-Wade and co. Not to mention, perhaps a new $200M contract.

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